Virtual reality beach turns dental procedures into a relaxing experience

In the future your trip to the dentist could be accompanied by a relaxing trip to a virtual beach, as research has found such VR experiences reduce anxiety and pain during routine dental procedures.

The research, which was conducted by scientists from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham in conjunction with Torringon Dental Practice in Devon, the UK, found that patients who ‘walked’ around a VR beach experienced less pain and anxiety during procedures such as fillings and tooth extractions than without VR, and more positively recalled the treatment a week later.

VR is already being hesitantly explored by dentists as a way of making the experience less hellish for patients, but the research is one of the first to show a quantifiable benefit, as well as identify the type of VR experiences that best help patients.

“The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences,” said study lead author Dr Karin Tanja-Dijkstra. “Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

Interestingly, the study also found that not all VR experiences are equal when it comes to improving patient experience. Study participants were allocated into three groups, one which had no VR experience at all, one which explored a VR beach and one that visited a VR city.

In both VR cases the participants wore a standard headset and explored using a controller, but only the beach – a virtual version of Wembury beach in Devon, the UK, shown in the video above – reported an improved experience.

This shows the importance of the VR experience providing a relaxing environment, something the researchers anticipated the beach would provide.

“We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside,” said study co-author Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter. “So it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could “bottle” this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts.”

“The level of positive feedback we got from patients visiting Virtual Wembury was fantastic,” added Melissa Auvray, a dentist from Torrington Practice who was involved in the research. “Of course, as dentists we do our very best to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible but we are always on the lookout for new ways to improve their experiences.”

Images courtesy of University of Plymouth

The research, which was published today in the journal Environment & Behaviour, also demonstrated that VR in such settings was not just about distracting patients from the unpleasant reality they found themselves in, but to provide a relaxing alternative.

“That walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes shows that merely distracting the patients isn’t enough, the environment for a patient’s visit needs to be welcoming and relaxing,” added University of Plymouth project coordinator Dr Sabine Pahl.

Having shown the benefits for dentistry, the researchers now plan to investigate the benefits for other healthcare environments where a relaxing alternative to the reality could help improve patient experience.

“It would be interesting to apply this approach to other contexts in which people cannot easily access real nature, such as the workplace or other healthcare situations,” said Pahl.

Is Microsoft throttling VR for Xbox?

“When it ships next year we believe it will be the most powerful console ever built,” said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, adding that Scorpio would offer over six teraflops of power.

”This is the console to lead gaming into true 4k and high-fidelity VR.”

That was Phil Spencer at 2016’s E3, talking about the then just announced Project Scorpio (now revealed as the absurdly named Xbox One X). Yet this year’s Microsoft E3 presentation featured no mention of virtual reality for Xbox and the company in fact seemed rather determined to avoid talking about the possibility. So what has changed to turn Xbox away from VR?

Back in 2016, Xbox seemed determined to step into the VR field and even went so far as to say that a VR version of Fallout 4 (which previewed at this year’s Bethesda conference) would appear on the then still codenamed Project Scorpio. Exactly what they planned was unclear, as there was no mention of headsets at the time, but there were several options in front of the Microsoft team.

Having previously pushed hard about their partnership with Oculus, it would have been reasonable to assume that there would be a Rift attuned specifically to the Xbox One X on the way. Alternatively, with PlayStation having sold over a million units of PSVR, it was possible that Microsoft might try to compete by creating their own console virtual reality headset.

Yet this year, talking to the BBC, Phil Spencer said, “I don’t get many questions about console and mixed reality in the living room. I think there’s just issues with my TVs across the room, there are cables hanging out. When I do this on my PC, I’m closer to my PC, that seems to be a much more user friendly scenario today.”

The U-turn seems… strange. From boasting about the potential The Xbox One X had as a virtual reality machine to determinedly avoiding even saying the words ‘virtual reality’ (throughout the interview with the BBC, Spencer is very deliberate about always saying ‘mixed’ rather than ‘virtual’), it seems like word has come down that Xbox is to avoid even discussing console virtual reality.

Instead, the words mixed reality seem to put the focus on HoloLens, their holographic platform. The oddness here is that HoloLens is by no means a consumer product (the development edition retails at $3,000) and it’s almost certainly not a gaming platform. While they have somewhat more consumer friendly versions made by their original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partners, it still doesn’t really make sense as any sort of analogue for their VR competitors.

Again, Spencer talking to the BBC, “We are believers in mixed reality. Mixed reality on the pc is something we’re focused on and building first party games. Our mixed reality platform with our OEM partners continues to rollout, we’ll have more to talk about in the future.”

Images courtesy of Xbox

It certainly sounds like Spencer has been specifically told not to mention virtual reality in relation to Xbox. The question remains, though: why? You’d think a more standard response would either be that “we’re not working on it right now” or “we may have something in the works but we’re not ready to talk about”, not this weird divert into saying virtual reality doesn’t belong on console.

Whether or not they want to talk about it, console VR is a thing. Microsoft presumably has a plan here but it’s hard to work out what it could be, unless they’re saving some big reveal for another convention down the line. We best hope so because if not, they’re deliberately choosing to throttle their console’s ability to branch out.